MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “Holograms”/”The Condemned” (spoilers)
First off, a couple more observations about the new main title sequence:
The main title sequence is longer, with a truncated, ten-bar reprise of the main melody added before the final sting, over the cast credits. The montage includes shots of the team members’ passports. The camera is zooming out as the image changes from one passport to the next, so varying amounts of text are visible, but here’s what I can discern:
All five team members’ passports claim they’re US citizens, and Nicholas was allegedly born in Massachusetts, despite Max and Nicholas having distinct Australian accents and Casey a subtler one. Casey’s date of birth is March 8 (year unseen), Grant’s is October 3 (year unseen), Nicholas’s is July 24, 1950. Jim was born in California on October 10, 1929. That makes Jim two and a half years younger than Peter Graves and Nicholas five years younger that Thaao Penghlis. Jim’s passport was issued January 27, 1987.
And now to our story.
“Holograms”: Sorry, folks, this is not a Jem crossover. It is, however, our first chance to see what the new M:I writing staff can do when not remaking an original episode. Robert Brennan is our writer this evening.
We open with an assassination brazenly committed while the victim is being interviewed. The TV reporter recklessly declares the victim dead seconds after the shooting. After the titles, we get stock footage of San Francisco, confirming that Jim still lives there (although the Australia-based filming means we don’t get actual footage of Jim in SF locations like we did in season 7). He trades code phrases with a street violinist on what’s probably meant to be Fisherman’s Wharf. Despite being a new episode, its setup closely parallels the original’s “Fakeout”: drug lord Col. Usher (Gerard Kennedy) is self-declared president-for-life of a nameless country, indicted in absentia by the US but kept immune from overthrow by his enforcer Duvall (William Zappa), who assassinated his only legitimate rival for the presidency. The mission is to neutralize Duvall and lure Usher onto US-controlled soil so he can be arrested. (The country is probably meant to be in the Caribbean somewhere, but it’s hard to tell since it’s so oddly Anglophone.) The show has reprised the original’s device of freeze-framing and showing the series title over a music sting (originally done at the end of the dossier sequence, now at the end of the disc sequence), though that serves little purpose now because the producer, writer, and director credits do not accompany it. The music sting here is basically the original one, with Schifrin himself providing this episode’s score.
The apartment briefing is handled differently than in the original show. There, usually, the team had already been briefed on the basics before we arrived, and we’d just see them going over the details one last time; it was clear they knew things we didn’t, and part of the suspense came from wondering what purpose the various devices and stratagems were meant to serve. Here, though, most of the team seemed to be learning the plan from Jim for the first time. The exception is Grant, who’s been working on a holographic system projecting a ghostly image of the new series’ first guest team member: Kieron Taylor (Gavin Harrison), the 15-year-old son of an IMF member, who’s going to play the role of the long-lost son that Usher believes he has (from an abused wife who left him and whom he believes was pregnant at the time) and has been obsessively searching for. This is one more indication that the IMF now has people working for it beyond the individuals Jim recruits. The new series is fleshing out the agency a bit more than the original did, a step toward the huge IMF bureaucracy of the Tom Cruise movies. Anyway, the plan is to lure Usher to a beach house on a US-controlled island by building a duplicate beach house on a neutral island where Usher is safe and then doing a switcheroo. I don’t much care for having the plan revealed up front like this; I prefer the old method where we just got hints.
Nicholas and Grant get in by impersonating a recently-arrested drug dealer and his bodyguard, there to sell Usher the ether he needs to boost his cocaine manufacturing. Grant rigs Usher’s bedroom with hologram projectors that, when it’s dark, create a midair image of Kieron doing a Princess Leia-style “Father, we need you” routine. (As usual in fiction, there’s no explanation for what the “hologram” is supposedly reflecting off of in midair.) This is a rehash of the gambit the team used in season 4’s “Phantoms” and season 5’s “A Ghost Story,” although the techniques used there were more intricate. Anyway, Usher (who already suffers from a congenital neurological condition giving him severe headaches) worries that he’s hallucinating, and Nicholas happens to mention that there’s an American neurologist named Dr. Quinn in the vicinity. Now, here’s where the script makes a mistake: They’ve perfectly set up Usher to invite Quinn and believe it was his own idea, but instead Nicholas takes the liberty of inviting Quinn — who of course is Jim — on his own. Sorry, wrong. The key to a con game (or so I understand it from fiction) is to make the marks think it was their own idea to do what you want them to. Make them think they’re being led and it’ll just make them suspicious.
Anyway, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Agent lets slip that he’s been treating a boy with an almost identical congenital condition (and the same rare blood type as Usher) on a nearby island, ferried there by a seaplane pilot played by Max. Duvall brings Max in and he tells Usher where to find the island, and it’s the neutral island where the team has built the fake house. There, Usher meets Kieron, who drops enough hints to convince Usher that he’s the long-lost son. (Casey briefly impersonates his ex-wife from a distance, but otherwise her only role in the story is to be Kieron’s chaperone, as well as his scuba partner for a trick earlier on where Kieron appeared before Usher in the flesh and then ran to the beach and swam off underwater so that Duvall couldn’t find him.)
Meanwhile, Nicholas is rigging the (oddly unoccupied) cocaine processing facility with explosives when he’s caught by Duvall, who’s been tipped off by the guy Nick’s impersonating. Duvall calls Usher back from the island. Grant sees that Nick’s been arrested and helps him knock out Duvall. Now, I always like it when the plan goes awry and the team has to improvise, but it feels like a cheat here, because apparently taking out Duvall and having Nicholas impersonate him was the next step in the plan anyway. (And having Usher called away at that point was apparently part of the plan too, since it lets Kieron relocate and the team’s helpers dismantle the duplicate house.) As Duvall, Nicholas tells Usher that he had the impostor killed, and that the US fleet is on maneuvers so he can’t take the boat back to the island. The only option is Max’s seaplane — and again the script makes the mistake of having Dr. Jim blatantly suggest the idea to Usher rather than just letting him think of it himself. You’d think Usher would be suspecting a trap by this point, since by now he knows that the man who brought in Dr. Jim was an impostor. But Usher is conveniently clueless and lets himself be led by the nose to the wrong island, where US authorities are there to arrest him.
This is a mediocre and flawed beginning for the revival’s original stories. It’s largely a rehash of tropes from older episodes, which is perhaps forgivable considering that they were all going to be remakes at first; perhaps this script grew out of a preliminary remake plan. But the greater problem is that the execution is awkward and lacking the subtlety which a proper con game should have. It shows a lack of understanding of the show and its approach. There’s also some really clunky expository dialogue, and a rather silly part where Usher soliloquizes to Dr. Jim about his deepest concerns and anxieties immediately after first meeting him and before he has any reason to trust him.
Still, the production succeeds where the writing fails. Kennedy is excellent as Usher, with a gravel-voiced performance reminding me of Kevin Conway’s Kahless from Star Trek: TNG, and showing a more sympathetic, almost touching side as he tentatively reaches out to the boy he believes is his son. The location filming made possible by the Australia-based production leaves the original show’s soundstages and backlots in the dust. And Lalo Schifrin provides an excellent score that reminds me at times of some of his work from the original’s season 3, while occasionally venturing into more modern territory (though I still suspect Ron Jones of arranging some of the synth ostinati in the second half). Schifrin also provides an original action cue which is basically an inversion of the main theme, and in the climax he does something only rarely done in the original, combining the main M:I ostinato with “The Plot” before shifting into a full statement of the main theme for the moment of triumph and the finale.
But the new main cast is still a little underwhelming. Nicholas is supposed to be playing an American here, but if he’s even attempting to do an American accent, then he’s doing it really badly. They really should’ve tried harder to cast actors who were good with accents. To be sure, the narrow repertoire of fake accents that Martin Landau and Leonard Nimoy were able to bring to bear wasn’t very convincing, but Penghlis doesn’t seem capable of faking an accent at all, short of having another actor’s voice dubbed over his own.
“The Condemned”: Remaking Season 2, episode 19. Teleplay by Ted Roberts and Michael Fisher, with the story credited to John Truman, a pseudonym for the original episode’s writer Laurence Heath.
This time there’s a lot of rewriting, although the basic plot is the same. The teaser shows former M:I regular Barney Collier (Greg Morris) at a cafe in Istanbul, where he’s arrested by the corrupt Captain Hamidou (Adrian Wright), a composite of the honest Mexican police captain and the criminal Constantine from the original episode. Apparently it takes Barney three months to get a message out about his arrest to the IMF — yes, this time it’s an official mission, while in the original it was a personal mission for Jim. He gets the assignment in a trailer on the beach, allowing for a couple of gratuitous bikini babes to walk by (in addition to the belly dancer in the cafe earlier). For some reason, the Voice is cagey and doesn’t tell Jim until the end that the wrongly condemned man he has to rescue is Barney. In the briefing, Jim suggests that Grant sit this one out since it’s too personal, but the young Collier insists on coming along. We learn that his mother passed away two years ago.
Jim convinces an honest underling of Hamidou (and one ambitious to be given back the prison governorship that Hamidou kicked him out of) to let him and Grant visit Barney — corresponding to the opening scene of the original, and giving Jim a chance to photograph the walls of the cell, which is an utterly awful, squalid place compared to the stark but clean cell in the original. Grant uses the photos to print out latex sheets duplicating the wall texture in three dimensions, which Nicholas and Max smuggle in wrapped around their legs during their priest impersonation (where they engage in some fun and well-played banter not present in the original). But they can’t very well have Greg Morris languish behind a fake wall for the whole episode like Kevin Hagen did in the original, so as soon as the “priests” return with the hooded executioner, and once the guard discovers the “empty” cell and runs off to sound the alarm, Max and Nicholas knock out the hangman, take down the fake wall, dress Barney in the hangman’s robe and hood, and escort him to freedom.
But they still have to clear Barney and bring down Hamidou. They need Barney to confront the woman who helped frame him, here named Lydia (Anna Maria Monticelli), but Barney’s in no condition after three months in that horrid cell, so Nicholas has to turn Grant into his father. This allows for a father-son exchange where Barney laments missing birthdays and important events in Grant’s life due to all his secret agenting, but Grant absolves him as, now disguised as his father, he tells him, “I wanted to grow up to be just like you.” Aww.
Casey tags along with Jim to investigate the home of the murder victim, here named George Stanton; since Cinnamon wasn’t in the original episode, Casey has no role of her own to fill. For the second week in a row, she’s pretty much a fifth wheel. She and Jim discover that Stanton and Hamidou stole a priceless royal necklace (rather than the original crown), then get arrested by Hamidou (in place of being captured by Constantine). Jim plays private investigator again, and convinces Hamidou to go into a partnership to find the necklace and split its insured value. Meanwhile, Barney confronts Lydia and forces her to go to Stanton, who kills her like in the original. This time, instead of accidentally falling to his death, Stanton confronts and almost shoots Jim, then gets into a fight with Nicholas before falling to his death. To save time, Lydia lingers long enough to fill Jim in on the plot details the team had to figure out on their own the first time. In this version, Stanton faked his death in order to double-cross his partner Hamidou and get away with the necklace.
The endgame is much simpler than the elaborate remote-control car chase in the original. There, they had to make it look like a dead man was still alive in order to prove to the honest police captain that he’d faked his death earlier. Here, they have to expose the corrupt captain’s culpability in the crime. So they just lure Hamidou to Lydia’s cafe, where Barney confronts him (using the old mirror-in-the-door trick to avoid Hamidou’s bullets — three times in a row, since Hamidou has an amazingly flat learning curve) and gets him to confess to his acts of thievery and murder while the team tapes the whole thing. Seriously, the guy can’t resist incriminating himself repeatedly and in detail, which comes off as laughably contrived. All the team has to do is invite the honest cop and show him the videotape — after Barney “accidentally” tips Hamidou off that the necklace is in his cell, driving the corrupt captain back to the prison so he can be handily locked away.
The caper portions of this episode are a step down from the original. That was the first off-book mission we’d ever seen Jim on, a rare departure from formula in which the team had to improvise its tricks and solve a mystery on the fly (although, as I said in my review, their improvised tricks were implausibly elaborate and indistinguishable from their usual schtick). Not to mention the added challenge of proving that a man thought already dead was still alive even after he’d died for real. This was more of a conventional mission aside from the personal angle, and an easier problem to crack since there was still a living villain to extract a confession from after Stanton died. So on that level, it falls short. But it benefits from the personal angle, using the plot of Jim saving a friend as an opportunity to bring back Greg Morris (for his first of several guest appearances) and explore Barney’s relationship with his son. It’s Barney’s scenes with Jim and Grant that make the episode work.
Production-wise, we’re still getting good location work, although there are a couple of less-than-convincing digital matte paintings of the hilltop prison fortress and the Istanbul skyline. Ron Jones scores again, reusing the ostinato he added to “The Plot” in episode 2, but his score here doesn’t impress me as much as his previous one — perhaps because I watched this just after watching the original, which was tracked with some of the old series’ best cues. We also get a shorter version of the main titles this time, leaving out most of the montage portion.